Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani
Publisher: Akashic Books
Release Date: 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Rating: 4 Stars
Set in the shadow of Kenya's independence from Great Britain, Dance of the Jakaranda reimagines the special circumstances that brought black, brown and white men together to lay the railroad that heralded the birth of the nation. the Novel traces the lives and loves of three men - preacher Richard Turnbull, the colonial administrator Ian McDonald and Indian technician Babu salim - whose lives intersect when they are implicated in the controversial birth of a child. years later, when Babu's grandson Rajan - who eks out a living by singing Babu's epic tales of the railway's construction - accidentally kisses a mysterious stranger in a dark nightclub, the encounter provides the spark that illuminates the three men's shared murky past. (Source: Book Blurb).
When I started reading this book, I wanted to love it so badly for the simple reason that it is Kenyan and patriot that I am, I started loving before reading and right off the bat, went into it with a biased view. As I immersed myself into it, however, I did more than just love it, I learnt a whole lot about my country, her genesis, her beautiful complicated history; and how we came to be a beautiful mix of Africans and Indians and Brits.
Its 1901, Ian McDonald ‘Master’ is here in the British East Africa Protectorate (Kenya) on service to the King of England, overseeing the laying of the Railway line from the Mombasa Coast to Port Elizabeth (present day, Kisumu). There is Reverend Turnbull, a Christian missionary on a mission to convert these African heathens to Christianity and Babu Salim, an Indian technician who arrived on a boat from India to aid in the construction of the railway. And then there are the African locals whose forefathers warned of the long winded snake (metaphor for the railway line) that would destroy everything in its wake. These men’s personal histories become entangled and their lives intersect and are inextricably woven together for another 60 years and through generations from the start of the 20th century to Independence in 1963.
As a lover of history, I found this narrative very engaging. Kimani manages to present our history in such a digestible way. I resonated with the language used in the book, almost as if I was sitting with my peers having a conversation – the expressions used in the book are exactly as I would use them in my conversations. The language was easy and the prose beautifully written.
I also loved that although this was a re-imagination of the railway line construction, it bore stark similarities to real people and events. Ian McDonald and his unrequited love story being quite similar to the tales of Lord Egerton, President Jomo Kenyatta, ‘Big Man’ personified as himself and the young lady who went to bed a princess and woke up as the Queen of England whilst on a vacation in Kenya with her husband. It was all so rich and engrossing.
The books delves briefly into post-colonial Kenya and it got me thinking about how we, as a country, may have gotten it wrong from the start. With corruption, selfish interests, land grabbing, destruction of the ecosystem and a ‘grab all you can NOW’ mentality dominating the early years of independence. Gives you quite a lot to think about. This is a well-balanced book. An important book.